The bull has clearly taken Tamil Nadu by the horns, bringing people out onto the streets to protest against the Supreme Court ban on a favourite sport involving the physical taming of the animal. Jallikattu, a festive game played in Tamil Nadu for centuries as part of the celebrations of the local festival Pongal involves the release of a bull amongst a crowd of people who are challenged to bring it to a halt by physically overpowering it.
Local folklore suggests the sport can be traced 2000 years back and is an essential part of the rural culture of the region. In 2014 though, the bull taming ritual came under attack by the Supreme Court. As per the court ruling, “bulls cannot be allowed as performing animals, either for Jallikattu events or bullock-cart races in the state of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra or elsewhere in the country.” This year, while the Environmental Ministry passed an order stating the continuation of the sport despite the ban, the Supreme Court put a stay on the order citing issues of animal rights. The people of Tamil Nadu on the other hand have decided to fight the court order citing cultural sensitivities and traditions as their rights.
While cultural significance is the concern of the people of Tamil Nadu, it would be useful to understand the importance attached to the symbolism of the bull in the ancient Indian society and why it continue to be upheld as a representation of valour and productivity.
The earliest evidence of jallikattu or bull taming can be found in ancient Indian cave paintings and seal iconography. Majority of cave paintings in Tamil Nadu consisted of tamed animals such as deer, horse, boar and the bull. The iconography of the bull and in particular, scenes depicting humans taming bulls were a common representation in seals, not just in South India but also in the Indus valley sites. Reflecting upon the importance of the bull in ancient India, archaeologist Patricia Duff has surveyed a large number of seals carrying images of bulls being tamed.
For instance, an Indus seal found at Banawali carries the image of a bull with five figures and two symbols. A short text accompanying the image reads, “buffalo battling a human (or deity)”. Similarly a terracotta clay tablet found at Harappa carries the image of a bull, two human figures and a crocodile. The posture of the bull suggests submission while the human figure is depicted in domination, grasping the horns of the bull with one leg on its head. Similar imagery of bull domination is not just restricted to India, but is also common in ancient sites of Egypt, Turkey and Greece.
The obsession of the earliest societies with bull has to be located in the economics of the time wherein cattle domestication was intertwined with humans evolution from a nomadic to a sedentary lifestyle. DNA evidence and anthropological research has shown that the process of domestication in early ages was followed by significant changes in the physique of animals, making them easier to tend to and breed. However, unlike most other domesticated animals such as dogs, sheep, goats or cows; bulls did not follow the path of natural taming down as is evident from the sort of aggression associated with the animal. The domestication of the bull therefore, carried with it a characteristic quality of fearlessness that we see upheld in the cave paintings and seals.
However, unlike most other domesticated animals such as dogs, sheep, goats or cows; bulls did not follow the path of natural taming down as is evident from the sort of aggression associated with the animal. The domestication of the bull therefore, carried with it a characteristic quality of fearlessness that we see upheld in the cave paintings and seals.
At present, the bull continues to hold a reputation in rural society that is associated with courage and physical strength. One of the reasons behind the celebration of Jallikattu is to honour bull owners. Consequently, the prize won by the victor is meagre economically but huge in terms of social prestige. However, while Tamil Nadu stands up unanimously to save the cultural symbolism of the bull, it is important to remember that like with everything else part of our traditions, even cultural notions towards animals needed to be located in time.